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New partnership brings high-resolution satellite imagery of the tropics to all

Illustration of Landsat satellite Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Cente

Illustration of Landsat satellite Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

  • Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment entered into a US $43.5 million contract, announced this week, with three well-established satellite monitoring technology groups: Kongsberg Satellite Services, Planet and Airbus.
  • This new partnership will give the world free access to high-resolution satellite imagery of the tropics.
  • The contract was awarded under Norway’s International Climate and Forests Initiative, an effort to mitigate climate change by protecting rainforests.

Satellites are powerful tools for monitoring deforestation. Now, a new partnership aims to make high-resolution, satellite imagery of the tropics free and accessible to everyone.

Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment announced this week that they have entered into a new contract, forming a partnership with three well-established satellite monitoring technology groups: Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), Planet and Airbus.

The US $43.5 million contract was awarded under Norway’s International Climate and Forests Initiative (NICFI), a program that aims to mitigate climate change by protecting rainforests. The government of Norway has made substantial investments to combat deforestation in the tropics and, for several years, NICFI has supported Global Forest Watch (GFW), a tool used by Mongabay and others to visualize and monitor forest change.

“This new partnership announced by the Norwegian government could be game-changing for tropical forests,” Crystal Davis, director of Global Forest Watch wrote in an email to Mongabay. “The public now has free access to high-resolution satellite imagery that can show the fate of a single tree.”

Global map showing the extent of monthly Planet basemaps to be provided through the partnership for tropical forest monitoring. Image courtesy of Planet Labs Inc.

The last revolution in global forest monitoring, Davis says, was when the US Government made Landsat satellite imagery freely available in 2007, making possible tools such as GFW. However, despite this freely available imagery, high-resolution satellite images have remained very expensive.

“This new announcement,” Davis said, “gives the world access to commercial satellite imagery more than 10x higher resolution than Landsat. It’s up to all of us now to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity.”

Over the past 40 years, an area of forest nearly the size of Europe has been destroyed. In 2019, an area of primary rainforest the size of a football pitch was lost every 6 seconds. Agriculture, infrastructure development (roads, dams, etc.), fires, urban sprawl, and extractive industries such as mining and logging have largely driven these trends.

Satellite monitoring allows NGOs, Indigenous groups, governments, businesses, and private citizens to visualize and monitor changes to forests over time in order to better understand what is occurring on the ground. For example, in 2015, Landsat satellite imagery revealed that a purveyor of “sustainable cacao”, cut down 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) of primary rainforest in Peru. Satellite data from Planet was used by the non-profit MAAP to confirm that the fires in the Amazon in 2019 largely followed a pattern of deforestation.

Planet video shows timelapse of deforestation in the Amazon (Lábrea, State of Amazonas, Brazil) over a three year period, demonstrating the use of high-resolution Planet imagery. 

“Small communities can now be seen and heard in their struggle with companies that steal their rightful territories,” the Norwegian minister of climate and environment, Sveinung Rotevatn, said in a statement about the launch. “The world’s supermarkets can monitor claims made by their suppliers regarding the sustainable production of soy, palm oil and other raw materials,”

The partnership gives the world a lot of data for the investment, says Andreas Dahl-Jørgensen, managing director of NICFI, as it leverages the strengths of all three partners.

KSAT is providing user and technical support, both for Norway but also for the many licensed users around the world. Airbus brings decades of historical satellite imagery to the partnership, allowing users to travel back through time to study trends and changes. And Planet is contributing high-resolution imagery, updated monthly, which stitches together the best images from a given month into a seamless, cloudless, layer. Planet will launch a user platform next month on its website to host the new, freely available data.

“Revolutionizing satellite data so we could see deforestation happening fast enough to stop it was one of the key reasons we founded Planet 10 years ago,” said Will Marshall, CEO and co-founder of Planet.

Planet’s Dove spacecraft enables the PlanetScope high-resolution dataset. Image courtesy of Planet.

“The PlanetScope data set is truly a revolutionary data set for this challenge,” Tara O’Shea, director of forest programs at Planet told Mongabay. “But…I think it’s important to note that it alone is not a silver bullet, and so it’s exciting for us to have this sort of partnership with the policy leadership of Norway and with the expertise of groups like Global Forest Watch.”

Important applications of deforestation detection and measurement occur in the government space, O’Shea says, and this new data will enable a lot of the commitments under the Paris Agreement. Through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a number of developing countries are eligible for payments if they reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, so this new satellite information could greatly improve the reporting verification processes for those commitments.

Combining Planet data with other datasets like LIDAR, to directly measure forest carbon, could also have implications for future scientific research. But most exciting, O’Shea says, is making this data accessible to communities.

“It’s amazing to actually work with the countries and the communities themselves because they have the local knowledge,” O’Shea said. “You provide them with the data and they find a lot more in it.”

“Satellite image is a powerful tool since it is better understood by indigenous communities compared to data sources from numbers,” Ianukulá Kaiabi Suiá, an Indigenous leader who represents the territory of São Félix do Xingu, Brazil, said in a statement. The Xingu territories have seen rampant deforestation and fires in recent years.

“These images will give the communities a better understanding of the problems’ location and dimension,” Kaiabi Suiá added, “so that their actions can be better planned.”

Banner image: Illustration of the Landsat satellite courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

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